When Alan Errington watches twin brothers Connor and Colton O’Neill patrol the pitch for his Magnuson Ford Mariners FC under-18 boys soccer team, a wave of déjà vu washes over him.
It was nearly a decade ago that head coach Errington helmed a memorable squad that won U18 national championships in 2002 and 2003. That team, now legendary in Abbotsford soccer circles, featured twin midfielders Mike and James Riehl.
“The last time I had twins on the same team, we won two national titles back to back,” Errington mused. “And this team is as good as that team, talent-wise. Whether they’ll get there or not, who knows.”
If the 2011 edition of the Mariners ascends to those lofty heights, you can be sure the O’Neill twins will be influential.
Connor, the elder sibling by 25 minutes, is a centre midfielder who scored both of the Mariners’ goals in a 2-1 victory over Richmond United in the Coastal Cup semifinals last week.
Colton, a right back and team captain, anchors a defence that has allowed just one goal in three playoff games.
The twins shared the local soccer association’s male player of the year award this season, and they’ve helped the U18s to within two victories of a national championship berth.
The Mariners face the North Shore Selects in the Coastal Cup final this Saturday (5 p.m., Minoru Stadium in Richmond). If they win the regional title, they’d play the top team from the Interior for the right to represent B.C. at nationals, which run Oct. 5-10 in Fredricton, N.B.
A trip to nationals would represent the fulfillment of potential for this Mariners group, which despite its talent, has tended to underachieve at playoff time in the lower age levels.
Errington speaks frequently of the 2002-03 championship teams as a means to motivate his current crew.
“Alan’s always telling us stories about them,” Colton said. “He says we’re probably more talented, but they’ve got the better work rate.”
“It’s exciting,” Connor added, looking ahead to the Coastal Cup final. “It’s our last chance to win something, and it’s our last year of youth soccer.”
The O’Neills, age 17 and in Grade 12 at W.J. Mouat Secondary, are following in the footsteps of their older brother Trevor in many respects. Trevor, a centre back, preceded them as Abbotsford soccer player of the year, winning the award in 2009. He’s also heading into his third season playing under Errington at the University of the Fraser Valley, and Colton and Connor will join him on the Cascades roster this fall.
“We’ve always played together in our back yard, but I’ve never actually been on a team with them,” Trevor noted. “It’s something we’ve never experienced, but it should be good, because the chemistry will be there right away.”
Errington said that having three brothers on the same team is both special and rare.
“The only time I can recall it was way, way back in the ’80s, when Bobby, Sam and Dan Lenarduzzi played together (for the Vancouver Whitecaps) for one game in the NASL,” he said. “But the O’Neills will do that for UFV next year.”
Personality-wise, Trevor O’Neill says his younger brothers are fairly similar – laid-back, humble guys who give an honest effort on the pitch. At the same time, they’re definitely two different people.
“My mom, back in the day, she’d get them the same clothes because they’re twins, and they couldn’t stand that,” Trevor recalled with a chuckle. “They like having their own stuff – their own fashion, their own friends.”